When we first bought our farm, the family we hired to work for us was the Nehrs: Herman and Jeannie and their daughter Betty. The next family was the Mills, husband and wife and two daughters. When we moved to the farm full time, we needed the entire house for ourselves and from that time on, we hired just single men. They had their own bedroom but ate and lived with us.
There was Lester Hoffman, a fine young man from a neighboring farm, who was killed at an early age in a car accident. Then there was Harry Read, and when possible, his father, Pappy Read. Pappy was a little gnome of a man and an excellent worker, living with his daughter and son-in-law on their farm in Bridgeville, New Jersey, most of the time. Our last hired man was Sam Van Why from either Paradise Valley or Mountainhome in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania.
Whoever named that hardscrabble mountain country Paradise Valley and Promised Land must have been related to the Viking explorer Eric the Red, who named that huge slab of ice Greenland. They were both con men, only interested in selling land they didn’t know what to do with to someone who hadn’t yet found out that they couldn’t do anything with it, either. Good farmland it was not.
A vagabond existence
During the Great Depression, many of the hired men were in their 20s and 30s and had never married because they couldn’t afford to. Many became hobos, traveling the country looking for work or better living conditions. Most of them were victims of circumstances over which they had no control whatsoever. Single hired men were usually good workers but they were not reliable, because they were single. They had no ties, seldom had a sense of responsibility, and all they owned was a suitcase full of clothing and perhaps a car. Most were always broke, their money spent on tobacco, booze, cars and women (not necessarily in that order).
It was from our hired men that I learned colorful, descriptive language that I had not learned from my parents. Many of those words raised doubts about a person’s parental lineage and scatology, and many altered Biblical references and a word that I later found out meant “to copulate.” To this day, under trying circumstances, certain suppressed words spring to mind, words that I learned from our hired men. I used them often after being kicked by a cow, hitting my thumb with a hammer or having an axle break on a wagon loaded with manure. I offer this not as an extenuating circumstance, but that is where I learned that vocabulary and I can’t help it if I have a good memory.
Living off the land
Sam Van Why was about 6 feet tall, thin, had dark hair and was swarthy from being outdoors all the time. Although his name was “Dutch,” there was a time when Spain controlled Holland and Sam was proof the Spaniards had planted their genes there.
Sam was a good worker, and although he smoked a lot and took an occasional drink, I never saw him drunk. Sam loved to hunt deer. Coming from the area that he did, he had done a lot of deer hunting. To many people living there, venison was a dietary staple; they couldn’t afford beef, lamb, pork or even chicken. It was cheaper to buy shells for a rifle or shotgun.
The Pennsylvania deer season always opened before ours in New Jersey. For years, their season opened on the first day of December. The first day of deer season was always a big event in any rural area, as schools closed and so did most of the businesses. No point in having school open when all of the boys and a third of the girls wouldn’t be there. No point in opening a business when your clerks wouldn’t be in and neither would any customers. The first day of deer season was not a recognized national holiday but it was a recognized national fact of life.
The call of Opening Day
The school year of 1940-’41 (my sophomore year), Sam and I were milking 12-15 cows by hand, with each of us doing half. In addition, we had some dry cows, young heifers, a small flock of chickens, half a dozen pigs, two horses, and a pony and a mule to feed, water and clean up after. I did my chores in addition to going to school. We had just gotten electricity, so I didn’t have to pump water by hand and we now had indoor plumbing, although we still heated the house with wood. Living was getting a lot easier. Those modern conveniences were great. We really appreciated them.
Sam had asked to have the first day of the Pennsylvania deer season off, said he wanted to go back home to hunt. We had the field crops in and were set for the winter, and my sister Ginny said she would help me with the milking and chores. So we said sure. Sam took off the night before the deer season, after we had the milking finished. Said he’d be back late the night of Dec. 1, in time to milk in the morning of Dec. 2.
I don’t know what luck Sam had in hunting. Don’t even know what kind of a day he had. Sam wasn’t back that night and he wasn’t back the next day either. In fact, Sam never did come back. He didn’t even have the courage to come back for his clothes. We knew he wasn’t shot, because he did send a friend for his clothing about a month later. Probably just as well he sent a friend or he probably would have been shot — by me.
A single hired man working on a farm at that time was paid $1 a day and got his room and board. Mom also did his laundry so, except for buying some clothing, he had no expenses at all. Oh, if he had a car, he had some expenses if he needed tires or repairs but that was all, because most of them “borrowed” what gas and oil they needed from our farm stock. We didn’t set the wages; it was standard pay for that kind of work at that time in our area.
World War II had broken out in Europe and America was gearing up to do her share. President Roosevelt had signed a lend-lease pact with Britain and was funneling supplies overseas to keep that island nation afloat. It was not only the war plants turning out war materiel that desperately needed workers, but all manufacturing plants of every description. The U.S. bounded back from the Great Depression and as everyone got back to work, orders flowed in and wages skyrocketed.
War plants began by paying 40 cents an hour for regular labor and 65 cents an hour for skilled machinists. Manufactured goods shot up in price, if you could get what you needed. Agricultural products also increased in price but did not keep pace. They didn’t then and they never have since. Milk went from $1.20 ($19.35 today) a hundred pounds to $2.35 a hundred during the war years.
Man of the house — at 15
Sam, like most farm help, had joined the war effort. It was a patriotic thing to do and it made good common sense for him to do it, but it left me — a kid of 15 — with an entire farm to run.
Thank God for my sister Ginny. Although she continued going to school each day, she would help me with the milking at night and in the morning. I don’t recall what the circumstances were, but on a couple of occasions I had to milk the 12-15 cows by myself. That took about three hours and although I was used to milking, I was not used to milking that many cows at one time. My hands and arms ached.
I stayed home from school because it took me all day to get the feeding, watering, cleaning out the barn and stables, and the rest of the chores done. Dad couldn’t come home to help me as his job on ships, transporting oil and aviation fuels, became ever more important.
I tried to carry on and did so for four and a half months until April 15, 1941. My folks and I realized that I would never be able to get the crops planted that we needed and I couldn’t continue missing school, as we were reminded by the school board, war or no war. Although we didn’t want to do it, we had no choice. In mid-April, we had a farm sale and sold all the cows, the horses and some machinery.
I was never a good student, unlike my sisters. Perhaps I was too much of a dreamer. I had always wanted to be an Indian or a mountain man. I disliked the confines of school. I slept through many of my classes, but then, by the time I got to school at 9 a.m. in the winter, I had already been up working for six hours. We didn’t realize it then but I had already lost a good part of my hearing, so perhaps I didn’t hear much in the classes I didn’t sleep through. I was taking vocational agriculture, English II, biology and a fourth subject I can’t recall. It doesn’t matter; I flunked all but my ag course.
Although I missed my prescribed ag classes, Harry Schnieber, my ag teacher, felt that in running the entire farm as I had done, I had learned more valuable hands-on farm lessons than I would have in school. He was right; I learned invaluable lessons. I learned not to be a farmer. FC
Leonard Lee Rue III is an acclaimed wildlife photographer and author of some 30 books, including The Deer of North America and The Encyclopedia of Deer.